Back To "Obama's Not Black"

We are a mere month away from Inauguration Day, and the debate about Barack Obama's blackness continues unabated.

The latest is this AP article, which states, "Debate over whether to call this son of a white Kansan and a black Kenyan biracial, African-American, mixed-race, half-and-half, multiracial - or, in Obama's own words, a "mutt" - has reached a crescendo since Obama's election shattered assumptions about race."

Right, because even though our nation is crumbling in numerous ways and we've got folks hurling shoes at our current president, the most important thing to define is whether Mr. President-elect is black or not.


Even with the myriad problems knocking at our door, it's clear that racism is, beyond a doubt, still the most challenging issue facing us. Otherwise, why is that AP article needed? Now, a month before the Inauguration, there are those that say Obama's not black, he's biracial. And then there are those that dislike the biracial label and say it's just an effort to get away from being black at a point in time when black people finally got their black president.

Obama has said he identifies as black but also embraces his white heritage. This is easy for me to understand because I approach my own identity in a similar manner. I love both my blackness and my Irish roots. I meet someone from where my black grandfather's family is from, I get SO excited, and I love to drive through the parts of Los Angeles where my father lived as a little boy. I can tell you about the ancient Ghana Empire and I know that the Battle of Tara isn't a scene from "Gone With The Wind".

But there's a reason that when I talk about my grandmother, I am only talking about the petite black woman who lived six blocks from me for most of my life, even though my white grandmother did not pass away until I was fifteen. For most of my life growing up, I had no white relatives other than my father. They were alive and they didn't live far away, but I can't remember attending not one holiday celebration at any of their homes. No being invited over for Sunday dinner, no weddings, no funerals. Nothing. I did not exist.

In my own youth and young adulthood, when I'd get asked, "Are you mixed?" I never felt comfortable with my response, not because of shame about my identity, but because I knew people were trying to place me into their mental filing cabinet. If I answered yes, some white people were relieved because they'd then think that I had more in common with them. In their mind, I became less scary, less threatening, less angry. And I listened to Depeche Mode so how "black" could I really be?

They wanted to believe that race still didn't matter, that racism didn't really exist and we are all just one colorblind, happy-go-lucky society. They hoped my Irish pride meant that too. The shock when they discovered that I did not believe any of those things was always a bit amusing, and sadly enough, disappointing and enraging.

Is this what some people are still hoping is the case with Obama? That he's not really black, just sort of black? Friendly black? Only black because he's married to that black woman? Are they afraid of what Black History Month might look like with a black man in the White House and are hoping a "biracial" man will tone it down?

The response from many in the black community if Obama had said, "I'm not black. I'm only biracial," would've been equally interesting. I wonder if it would've been like how we do Tiger Woods: He's black as you and me but doesn't want to admit that he's black? Oh, okay, whatever, bruh.

Jokes about how Mariah Carey used to say she's not black would then ensue.

Is that fair? Maybe not. People can and should be able to identify however they want. Brown skinned Latino students of mine would tell me they were white. I understood why they wanted to be white so badly, but that didn't make it my right to school them on who they were or what box they needed to fit in.

So, I propose a controversial solution to this question of Obama's race. I say that he cease to be black, and cease the biracial thing. Let's just have him start saying he's white and see how well that goes over. Let's see how long it takes before people start questioning his mental fitness for the job. And how about every black person in America starts saying that they're white? I mean, pretty much every black person in America has some white ancestry so how about we ALL claim it?

I mean, why not? Race is all a social construct and the rules constantly change to support a status quo. We have had a one drop rule in this country for centuries, and now, with someone with black ancestry about to get sworn into office, folks are still trying to decide what "race" he is for him. That's a no-win game right there so let's just end it and we can all be white.

No, that's not going to happen, but what if it did?

You see, this constant questioning about Obama reminds me of how much somebody's always trying to decide for black people who and what they are. Who are these people to tell Obama whether he's black or not? Have we not yet learned that blackness is not just a color in America? It is also a set of shared cultural and social experiences, which not everybody is trying to escape from.

Being black is not a death sentence, as much as it's made out to be that way. Why can't Obama be both biracial AND black? Why can't he be black, period? What's wrong with that? And can we move on to saving the economy while we're deciding?


Mes Deux Cents said…
Hi Liz,

I read a similar piece in the Washington Post. It seems to me that some, as you say, are trying to make Obama (racially) into someone they can be comfortable with.

Rather than try to deconstruct Obama's racial identity, I think that the discussion ought to be how silly the concept of race is.

It's really interesting that there is no push in the media to dispense with the concept of race, that would be a worthwhile conversation.
Jameil said…
friendly black is hilarious. i had to turn off the black and african american subject lines in my google news b/c i got tired of all the 'is he black enough? no he's not!' stories. IT'S RIDICULOUS! and not just from crazies. from reputable sources like the AP and others. so annoying. i'm always like, sigh, again? and must we? can he just be? and instead of worrying about this, can you think about real issues like you said??? dummies. and did you just say listened to Depeche Mode? pretty sure your relationship is FAR pass listening and all the way in obsession. please try to be more accurate in the future. *snickering*
Michael Horvath said…
I just posted something with a similar topic myself.

It's not WHAT we are, it's WHO we are.
Mamita Umita said…
I have had this discussion many times at home. Is it right to refer to him as just "black"?? Part of me thinks of the old rule -a drop of blood . . . but the entire argument seems so unimportant, I was hoping we would just see an amazing man regardless of his racial background.
Liz Dwyer said…
It's a great question to ask why there isn't a discussion in the media about why we need the concept of race. I think it's because folks know we haven't truly gotten to a place of true equality and justice and so you can't eliminate the categories if there isn't truly a level playing field.

Oh yes, friendly black. America LOVES friendly black. Yeah, this sort of story will probably run every six weeks or something. LOL, yes, I will try to be more accurate when describing my, er, obsession! Haha!

Yes, definitely who we are. The "What" changes depending on what part of the world we're in and what year it is. Of course, I fundamentally believe we're all spiritual beings first and that THAT is truly who we are.

Yes, and he IS an amazing man regardless of his background. He'd be top-notch in any neck of the woods. All of this is very different for our kids than it was for us when we were growing up. Like, if I'd ended up married to someone from a Persian background who came from a huge Persian family with a mother-in-law who taught the kids how to make tadig, would my kids still be black because at that point, they'd be more Persian than anything. Would their identities be based on culture? Appearance? Sigh. I have no answers for this.
Jessalyn said…
I had no idea you could turn off subject lines in Google News. I'll have to remember that.

Those who want to make a big deal about Obama's race don't realize that the term "biracial" wasn't widely recognized until 10-15 years ago. Nearly every adult I know of mixed black and white race identifies as black. That is what was accepted 30 - 40 years ago. If the world saw you as black, then that's what you were.

My husband and I have "labeled" our children as biracial. When they are older if they prefer to identify as black, that will be their choice. When it comes down to it, it really should be the person's choice with how to identify, not anyone else's.
Liz Dwyer said…
I had no idea either that you could turn off subject lines! See, without blogging where would either of us be? You are right about the term "biracial" and how things were 30-40 years ago. So true. Things are changing, especially here in California where you have higher rates of intermarriage between people from different backgrounds. If someone wants to have multiple identities, why can't they? -- I suppose one line of thought would be that doing so indicates a position of "racial privilege". Gosh, lots of stuff to think about with this.
Malik Akbar said…
I think the fact that modern civil rights law is predicated on defining protected classes in terms of "immutable characteristics" may have something to do with it. How to define race in legal terms is a continuing conundrum. Attempting to define Obama's identity is sort of a proxy exercise in defining everyone's racial status.
April said…
My girls and I understand in our own way. You see, we're Mexican, but we're also Irish, and my daughters are Greek as well. Sylvia has been told that she's not Mexican because she's fair-skinned. I don't understand why anyone really cares (about Obama, I mean), outside of the historical significance. I love the fact that he represents more of what I've seen in most Americans. We're all pretty much mutts now, aren't we?
Miriam said…
After the whole Obama may not be black thing going on with WF, I began to wonder do some white folks see black and white different subconsciously than blacks do?

Do some white folks subconsciously see "black" as negativity sphere rather than a color whereas blacks are seeing "black" as something physical or social?
My biracial relatives in the Caribbean seriously do not understand this American fixation.

I have several female friends in their 30s who are biracial. They see themselves as black but also say their biracial if anyone asks. They are close to both sides of their family and unlike Tiger Woods are not running away from black culture/roots etc.

Maybe because my friends grew up in NYC they don't seem to have any hang ups about race. Many of their classmates were from racially mixed backgrounds. One friend looks like Mariah with naturally blonde hair and one of the most "down" sisters I know.

I think the people throwing labels at Obama are the one who are uncomfortable with race. He wrote about his identity issues back in his youth. He seems to have a strong sense of self now.

People need to leave him the heck alone and work on their own issues.
David Sullivan said…
Who gives a shit what he is. He's a smart, driven man who wants to immerse himself into the biggest cluster-fuck since 1930. Good luck to him and to us.

When I look at him I see a light skinned black man.
Anonymous said…
Hasn't this already been discussed to DEATH? Hasn't Obama let everybody know he's "down"? Man I am sick of this crap when we have far more serious things to be discussing. Of Obama had any shady deals he'd be Black. Why did you even have to mention the golfer. Isn't he only 1/4 Black anyway? He just came out dark - which is why he married the whitest woman he could find. He wants to obliterate that part of his heritage, but is he so different from a lot of men who might be over the "50%" mark? I can't even waste my time thinking about this fools. I was definitely the "un-Black" Black person if music taste is a valid indication of ethnicity.
Anonymous said…
Great post. People relate to you on what they see on the outside until they get to know you. So Obama is a light skinned handsome black man. People don't "see" biracial that's why they have to ask. Everything fits in a little catagory - since he's broken the stereotypes for his category people need a new place for him to fit.
Anonymous said…
Los Angelista,
You might do your emotions a favor by ignoring opinion-type articles. It’s one thing to pay attention to the world and its events, but another to be concerned with what others opinions are.
As far as that AP article, I’m quite sure that if I had any AP cred I could, right now, hunt around this (often) crazy land and find some wack “Institute” with some ‘credentialed’ academic and 5 other “average” citizens who’d swear “Obama’s white, White. WHITE I say!”
Even more telling is when the article is centered around the ideas perpetuated by, uh lets see here, the “Manhattan Institute’s Center for Race and Ethnicity” or the author of “Authentic Blackness”. Geez, race is ALL these people are about, they’ve built their entire sand castle on it. I might as well go ask the Nation of Islam or the Aryan Nation for clear perspective about the matter.
Finally, any article that would even reference Christopher Hitchens just lost all respect. He’s just the usual “educated” egotistical attention whore.
Liz Dwyer said…
That's a great point. It's genius, in fact. It is TOTALLY a proxy exercise. You make me think about the countless conversations I've had over years about the concept of reparations. The whole legal definition of who's black really comes into play in that instance.

I also love that he represents what this nation truly is. I wrote a few months ago about the myth of pure whiteness and how, just as blacks almost all have a white person in their family tree, who's to say whites don't as well? Your comment also makes me think about how I once knew a brother/sister who were half Scottish, half Mexican. She came out looking more Mexican and he came out looking more Scottish, with red hair and freckles. Both were treated so differently by their family. He was told he was white. The sister was not. So ignorant. Glad you all are not going that way.

Probably. You know how it's said that black folks can "see" or "know" when someone has black ancestry and whites oftentimes don't see it? We definitely see race/racism differently, so I'm sure we see the definitions of black/white differently too.

Tell your relatives that we're just crazy up here! Seriously, we are. It's like a mental illness, a sickness. So right, I do see a difference between those who grow up somewhere like LA or NYC and other parts of the country. Maybe because it's so diverse you stop feeling like you have to explain your diversity?

As far as Obama, yeah, folks definitely need to leave the man alone. Give it a rest! But I do think there are those who subconsciously think, well, he's accomplished because he's biracial, not black. Not sure how they explain away Michelle Obama though, right?

I feel bad for him because he is most definitely walking into a veritable pile of it, isn't he? And for real, with all the work that he needs to do to fix things up, I really could care less at this point what color the man is. He needs our prayers and good wishes for his success, not speculation on whether he's black or not.

Nope, not discussed enough! I couldn't believe this story was getting front page on HuffPo and MSNBC. Just wack. And Tiger... I'd love to strap him to a chair and get inside his head a little, but to each his own, I guess.

Nope, if no one knew his story, if they just met him on the street, they wouldn't be walking away thinking, "By Jove, he's biracial!" He's broken the stereotypes so it does feel like an effort to say, well, he wasn't even really supposed to be in that category anyway! Sigh.
Liz Dwyer said…
True, true. This particular article got picked up all over the place, and after two days of seeing it everywhere, I just had to put my two cents in on it. I do wonder how many people are actually thinking about this outside of the media hype/think tank complex.
Anonymous said…
I don't know - can you be sure what all white people are thinking when they ask about you being mixed? People are so variable in their thoughts and feelings and backgrounds and motivations. I can't believe there is one racially-defined way of viewing an issue.

And, as you say, race is primarily a social construct. By the one-drop rule I'm black. 1/64th. But socially, I'm clearly white. For my part, I cringe when I hear people say, "I don't notice color" or "I don't see race." Bullshit, it's too ingrained and we just haven't made it that far in our culture. My feeling is that the more we are confronted with Obama as a person and a leader, the less we will hear that line of questioning. But no change comes without turmoil. I'm just thankful we have the chance to change.
Liz Dwyer said…
Gosh, it's been a long day and I have no idea if any of my response will make sense, but I'm with you in being glad we have the chance to change.

No, not sure what all are thinking, which is why I said "some". But I do think that there's a rather subconscious set of assumptions we make about someone from a different background if we know they are related to or grew up among folks from our particular background. In the black community, it's why Eminem gets street cred and Vanilla Ice did not. Indeed, when someone black asks the question, there's usually a whole OTHER set of issues coming into play with the inquiry.

Very interesting about your background because you know there are those who would argue you into the ground that you are not white. Actually, a girl I know who's half black/white identifies as white because she grew up in a white, suburban area. Appearance wise, she looks "black". Folks rarely accept her self-identification as white. They act like she's just confused. Even the HR at our former job would always mark her down as "counting" toward staff diversity.
miznyc said…
As you pointed out race is a social construct used every which way it is convenient. It's so tiresome.

And its the least important issue facing this country at the moment. My bad. Their choice of dog may be as unimportant.
brunsli said…
Great post!

I was in awe of how well Obama handled the race question during his campaign, much better than I ever could handle it growing up---and even now---who am I kidding?

I have to admit, I was a little annoyed that every single paper headlined that he was the first Black President elected in the US. He is that (regardless of being biracial), but he is so much more. He was the better candidate hands-down, he's an intellectual, a man who ran a principled campaign, and perhaps the only man who can help us get through the next four (oh., let's just say eight) years.

I'm in Spain right now, and the papers have articles about him already. It's hard to believe he's not president yet.
brunsli said…
PS I blogged about my mixed-girl take on the election November 7, if you're interested:
Jen said…
Great post.

I agree, though, that he represents true America, as April said, as you've discussed, etc. My Jewish side of the family is from Belarus, and everyone has red hair and blue eyes. My mother's Irish/German side has darker hair and skin tone... I look smack in the middle and have had people talk to me about "those Jews" not having the slightest idea who I am.

There is culture, there is skin color, but heritage is one thing and identity is the construct we embrace. I agree that most of us are "mutts" and that's probably the single most thing that I love about the U.S.

And yeah, let's move on to the economy, shall we?

The other thing that's bugging the hell out of me is the whole "he's not a citizen" thing.
Anonymous said…
I overloooked the "sme" - my error.

But "They act like she's just confused." cracked me up!
Unknown said…
in many parts of africa he would not be considered black im from south africa and i fall in a category thats titled coloured ( people of mixed racial heritage) i think the black umbrella is so complex to define.I think people of mixed ancestry also wants to acknowledge both sides and not one why should be only be one? i was reading a interesting piece on the lead singer from zap mama she half african half european and when she came back to congo she was not accepted as black.
BlackLiterature said…
I "heart" you!!

I know I'm late, and my opinion is biased, but it hurts my heart a bit to hear brown people try to distance themselves from the one group of people that has historically accepted just about anyone as one of our own.

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